When the interpreter faces a bigot.

July 21, 2014 § 11 Comments

Dear colleagues:

Unfortunately, because of the type of work we do, all of us had to deal with uncomfortable situations at some point during our careers. To a higher or lesser degree, all of us have fielded questions like “Why do you do this work?” “How much money is “spent” (code word for “wasted”) paying for this service geared to those who do not speak the language of the land?” “How do you feel about helping these people who are not willing to assimilate to the local culture”? “Are they really that dumb that they cannot learn the language?” etcetera. Other interpreters have sat there, listening to comments such as: “If they don’t speak the language they should go back to their country,” “They want to speak their language because they like badmouthing the rest of us,” and some others that I rather exclude from this post because they are offensive and spelling them out contributes nothing to this article.

Of course, those of us who have been more than once around the block have lived through these situations more than our younger colleagues, and for the most part, we have come to understand that those making the remarks are the ones with the problem. In other words, we do not have time for this nonsense, so we just ignore them. This has been my strategy for years and it has worked fairly well.

Unfortunately, an incident happened a few weeks ago. I understand that when we think of bigotry and interpreting, we immediately picture a courtroom, a police station, a government agency, a public school, or a county hospital. You think of court, community, and healthcare interpreters as the ones dealing with these issues all the time. That may be so, but other interpreters (conference, military, media, etc.) have faced their share of this evil when practicing their profession. On this particular case, I was doing some escort interpreting for a foreign dignitary who was visiting the United States from a Spanish-speaking country. This was an important visitor, but he was not a head of state or celebrity; you see, bigotry tends to hide away when the potential target is surrounded by the media and some bodyguards. In this case I was providing my services to a very important foreign government officer who traveled alone. This individual was very sophisticated, formally educated, well-traveled, and very important back in his home country.

After a very successful visit, and once he took care of his business in the United States, we headed to the airport for the check in process. This was the last part of my job. After escorting this person for several days in different cities, after business meetings, formal events, flights, hotels, and other activities, all I had to do now was to take the dignitary to the airport, help him with boarding passes, connecting flights, immigration and customs, and send him off. I have done this thousands of times, all of them uneventful. We arrived to this domestic airport in the American south, and we proceeded to the airline ticket counter. The airport was pretty empty and we walked straight to the counter where we found a middle-aged Caucasian male wearing the airline’s uniform. I handed the passport and other required documents, identified myself as an interpreter, and told him what we needed. He looked at me and then he turned sideways in order to exclude me from the conversation and he addressed the visitor directly. This person, a guest in our country, looked at me and told me that he did not understand. I interpreted what the airline clerk had asked him, and once again told the clerk that the visitor did not understand him because he did not speak English. I explained to him what my role was, and asked him to ask his questions as usual. He looked at me once again, and this time he completely turned so that I was fully excluded from the conversation. He continued to address the visitor in English. The visitor looked for my help and this clerk did not let him. He told him that he “had to listen to the questions and answer them himself.” The guest told him in broken English that he was sorry but he did not understand the questions because he did not know English. The clerk smiled and asked him with a smirk: “You don’t understand English and you live in the twenty first century amigo?” I continued to interpret all this time, and when I saw that this clerk was going to give the visitor a very hard time, I asked the dignitary to step away from the counter and have a seat. I told him that I was going to take care of this situation. The visitor honored my request and went to a chair that was at a good distance from the counter so that the guest would not have to hear what I was about to say. As this was happening, the clerk yelled at him: “hey, ‘amigo’ you cannot leave, I am talking to you.” Once the visitor left, I addressed the clerk directly and once again explained to him the circumstances, including my role as the escort interpreter. He first looked at me for several seconds, then he laughed, and finally he told me that at his airport (remember this was a domestic airport with no international flights) they spoke English because “it was located in the United States.” He told me that he was going to ignore me because his job was to make sure that “this guy” would be able to get around once he was alone. He even told me that he was considering denying him a boarding pass because he was not going to find his way at the hub where he was supposed to take his international flight. He also told me that it made him mad that “…this country was letting in people who didn’t even care to learn English before coming to the United States…” At this point he told me that he needed the guest by the counter alone or he would deny the boarding pass. He then walked away and left. I looked around to confirm what I already knew: there was nobody else from the airline in sight.

Because of time constraints and due to the lack of infrastructure at this airport, I decided to tweet the basics of the incident with the airline hashtag. I immediately got an answer, and in a matter of minutes (maybe seconds) a different airline clerk met me at the counter. This individual took care of the visitor addressing him directly through the interpreter and the rest of the process was completed without incident.

After the visitor left, I decided to follow-up on this incident and I filed a formal complaint against this individual. I did it so that others do not have to go through what we did, and to raise the awareness of the airline. Professionally, I was satisfied with my performance: I took care of the problem, the visitor left as planned, and he noticed very little of what happened, thus avoiding an uncomfortable situation for this person who was a guest in the United States. This episode reminded me that despite the way things may be in the big cities, there are still plenty of places in the United States, and elsewhere, where we as interpreters must be on our toes and be assertive to do our job even when we face adverse circumstances. This time it was an escort interpreter assignment, but these situations are prone to happen in the courtroom, at the hospital, the public school, the government agency, and everywhere unsophisticated individuals are found. Always remember: bigotry could be around the corner, so be ready to act. I invite you to share with us some stories of your interactions with bigots who have directed their hate to you or to your client.

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